Two weeks after ending enhanced protocols, Catawba has no COVID-19 cases

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 2, 2021

SALISBURY — Less than a month after seeing its highest number of active COVID-19 cases, Catawba College recorded zero students and employees in quarantine.

Catawba College Dean of Students Jared Tice on Monday said he would have been surprised to see the rapid decline a month ago.

Last week, the college tested 349 athletes, a supermajority, and there were zero positives. The college has also continued randomly testing a few dozen non-student athletes and employees randomly each week.

“These are very strong numbers considering what we anticipated at the beginning of January,” Tice said.

Tice, part of the college’s Remain at Catawba Committee that has been examining the pandemic, said the college was expecting a spike in cases when students came back in late January and delayed its return from winter break compared to a normal year to avoid the worst of the post-holiday spike in early January.

The total number of student infections during the fall semester was 59. Two weeks after the spring semester started on Jan. 24, that number had climbed to more than 100.

The college created a color-coded campus status ranging from green to red. Green “assumes manageable number of COVID-19 cases” and allows the campus to operate normally but with standard precautions like masks and social distancing.

Catawba Vice President Drew Davis said moving up the protocols is based on more than just campus infection rates. The college also looks at community factors like positivity rates and the capacity in Rowan Medical Center.

The campus moved into a subcategory of its yellow classification on Feb. 3 in response to the spike, suspending all student events on campus, changing its dining halls to takeout only and increasing social distancing during athletic training. The college kept in-person classes because it had found no cases of transmission in classrooms. Active cases continued to climb for the next week and then rapidly dropped off during the week of Feb. 10 to 16.

There were no new cases recorded in employees until Feb. 12. So far, there have been three recorded this semester and a total of seven this academic year.

The college has attributed the spike when students returned to the vestiges of the time spent away from campus during the break and traced other cases to off-campus events.

Davis, who is also Catawba’s general counsel, said the beginning of the pandemic came with a lot of unknowns. It refunded students who left campus based on a formula and the state put liability immunity in place to insulate higher education. He said the college’s main concern was how to best protect its people.

He recalled something Tice said to him in a meeting a full year ago which he went on to parrot: “Our kids are safer here.”

“I can’t tell you the number of times in the last 12 months I’ve repeated that to myself or other groups,” Davis said.

A year ago, the college thought that was true, but did not have the data to prove it. Twelve months later, college officials say they know the statement is correct.  Other higher education institutions and schools have also seen low spread on campuses when standard safety measures are enforced.

“We have rarely had zero active cases, so I think that is something for our community to celebrate,” Davis said about the recent improvement. “It’s a testament to the fact that the vast majority of our students are following and adhering to our protocols.”

The numbers may be at a record low, but the administration does not want the campus to let up on what it is doing.

“We’re not out of it at any point,” Tice said. “One positive case in the right environment or a large team could put us in a precarious situation.”

The biggest conversation now for the Catawba committee is vaccination. Some people on campus have already been vaccinated by meeting other criteria, but the college is expecting vaccines to be made available to higher education broadly on March 10. The college is encouraging everyone on campus to get the shot.

The college is also trying to get a vaccine site designation as well. Its faculty and nursing students are trained to administer the vaccines.

The college is hopeful for a normal fall semester, possibly with some mitigation still in place. 

Tice expects there may be some difficulty adjusting after a year of social conditioning to mitigate the pandemic, but he sees some positives, including a greater willingness to adapt and simple things such as more people eating outdoors.

About Carl Blankenship

Carl Blankenship has covered education for the Post since December 2019. Before coming to Salisbury he was a staff writer for The Avery Journal-Times in Newland and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2017, where he was editor of The Appalachian.

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